On Sunday August 19, 2012 in Jerusalem, four more women were arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, considered the holiest site in Judaism, for reportedly engaging in behavior that could lead to “endangering the public peace and for wearing a prayer shawl.”
They were praying.
Yes, it is still against the law for women to pray out loud, wear a tallit (prayer shawl), and read from the Torah at the Kotel. However, such practices are considered normative for many Jewish women worldwide. The law stems from a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court decision, when the Court upheld in principle the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Wall, yet succumbed to the bullying of religious extremist parties. Unfortunately, the incorporation of these parties seems to be required for the formation of any coalition government.
The 2003 Court decision moved communal prayer for women and mixed-gender Jewish communities (Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructionist) to another area of the Wall called Robinson’s Arch, creating a separate and unequal situation, further strengthening the power of religious extremists at the main plaza. For the full history of Women of the Wall’s court battles, click here.
But like early court responses to Jim Crow laws in the United States, not all Court decisions are de facto ethical.
Israeli government officials would have us believe that the forced move to Robinson’s Arch was a reasonable compromise to keep the peace, and that women need to stop being so uppity. For the record, the uppity women of Women of the Wall are routinely called Nazis. I call them courageous.
And since that fateful Court decision, a heart-wrenching defeat for Women of the Wall, conditions for women have only deteriorated. Emboldened religious extremists, laden with political power, have forced women to enter and sit in the back of many public buses, and walk on gender-segregated sidewalks in religious neighborhoods. They have banned women from certain stores, silenced them on the radio, defaced images of women on public advertisements, and challenged Israel’s national airline El Al to cater to extremist seating preferences, moving women to other seats. Repeatedly, women have had to stand up for themselves, often in court, to remain equal in the public sphere, and they risk physical harm.
So what can you do about all of this?
1) You can sign on to the Women of the Wall’s facebook page and keep up to date.
2) You can follow the legal efforts of the Israel Religious Action Center.
3) You can learn about the New Israel Fund, which helps protect all those who are marginalized in Israel, including women.
4) You can organize a “sing-in” like Friends of Women of the Wall did this week, in front of your Israeli consulate, to ensure that women’s voices are heard.
5) You can sign the petition to diversify the Western Wall Heritage Council (run by the extreme-Orthodox) here.
Make no mistake, Women of the Wall’s struggle is emblematic of the larger struggle to protect the public rights of women from religious extremism.